wear it out

Words by Cameron Kokes / Photos by Justin Hartney

 
 

From wind-blown ridgelines to fleece-bundled beer toasts around the campfire, flare accompanies high-function and precise engineering in the outdoor apparel industry. No one understands this better than Nicole Basset, who for years worked for icons like Patagonia and prAna, absorbing the processes and particulars of creation. In this self-education, she asked the question few others dared to ponder: “How can we do this better?” In a progressive sphere of an otherwise bottom-line focused clothing industry, she dug at the roots of still deeply entrenched sustainability issues within outdoor apparel. The treasure she unearthed is the Renewal Workshop, a cutting-edge business propelling active apparel towards a new dawn of efficiency and conservation.

Renewal What?

The big-picture idea of this company is to help the apparel industry become circular in nature—and there are a lot of steps that need to happen in order for that to manifest. Essentially, Renewal Workshop is a new type of factory that is trying to help apparel brands change their businesses so that the clothes that they make can have a longer life. Some companies are really good at implementing return programs, but ultimately, all of the clothes we wear eventually end up in a landfill. Clothes aren’t aluminum cans.

Splitting Hairs

An aluminum can is easily recycled because it’s essentially aluminum into aluminum. Textiles involve an assortment of fibers spun together to create a fabric, and there’s a lot of blending of fibers. So for recycling’s sake, there’s a complicated process of separation that happens at the micro level. In this context, so much of the clothing we come into contact with is designed to be waste.

A Point About Apparel

I worked at Patagonia, prAna, and a few others, working only on manufacturing and supply chain sustainability. One of the things I loved was being in factories—being on the factory floor, solving problems. I had a hard time being so disconnected from that. Nowadays, brands design things here to be made somewhere else. I wanted to start a factory, but I didn’t want to make new things. The problem of apparel being sent to the landfill before its time is an issue for me.

No Love Lost

We set up formal partnerships with the companies we work with. They all have a warehouse for new product as a housing place before getting sold to stores or individuals. As stuff comes back and they can’t restock it, it goes to a corner of the warehouse and starts to compile. At that point, they simply ship us that product. We work with brands like prAna, trying to keep product at its highest value before recycling. So that when you as a customer visits the RW.com site and buys something, you’re getting something with a huge environmental benefit, it’s less expensive, and yet it’s going to essentially be the same as a brand-new product.

Consumer Engagement

Right now, consumers only buy through our website, because it’s pretty intensive to build a new sales channel inside a brand—think investment, marketing, retail. For instance, prAna tells their customers, “Hey if you want to get renewed prAna apparel, check out the RW.” There is a revenue share engrained in the partnership. We’re selling on the brand’s behalf and they get a piece of that. In the future though, we foresee that brands will re-absorb product from us and sell it back through an established sales channel.

Swimming Upstream

The biggest challenge is the fact that we took on a massive idea. The apparel industry hasn’t changed that much over hundreds of years. So for a new company to come along and shun the easier-faster-cheaper mode of operation is difficult. Many companies we come into contact with use materials that are extremely difficult to recycle.

Planned Obsolescence

Luckily, in the outdoor apparel sphere, companies manufacture with an eye towards sustainability and durability in material. We deal in price points with a little bit of wiggle room for repairs. By contrast, materials that, say, Gap, H&M, or Forever 21 use are so inexpensive that no one can add value back into the product, because the value added via repair becomes more expensive than the original. Ideally, cheap things should be designed to be recycled very easily. With more expensive, more durable pieces, the mission is to vastly extend the life of that product. There’s so much infrastructure that needs to be established if the apparel industry is going to change in a big way, but we’re doing our part to push things forward.

Material Goals

There’s a hierarchy of use, and reuse is the stage with the most value. After that, materials can be “upcycled”—say a jacket turned into something else, but not completely broken down. Recycling is ideally the last stage. We’re in phase one as a company, meaning we currently deal exclusively in reuse. Our goal is to work through all three stages and support the infrastructure for each.

Hub of Change

Nature is the best system in the world. So if we’re going to operate a business as a system, it’s practical to draw from the nature that exists immediately around us. For instance, the tree that may be rotting nearby—it’s not garbage, it’s food for the ecosystem and the soil. We feel connected here.